Decision Paralysis: Humans Are Delicate Creatures Who Are Simple, Stupid, and Easily Overstimulated

Sophie, my Very Easily Overstimulated Border Collie

This week, I began playing Overwatch. I started with a few practice rounds in the “training map” on my friend Diane’s account while she watched. Immediately after hitting “start,” I was presented with about 11 characters to choose from. I sat there, having no idea where to begin. After a few minutes of silence, Diane asked what was taking so long. I told her I couldn’t decide what player to begin with.

Finally, she urged me to start with Soldier 76 because he was “pretty standard.” Immediately I was able to continue and finally start playing. After I played him for a while, I went back to try a new character. I was paralyzed again. Diane explained the difference between how the characters were categorized- attack/defense/tank/support. I ended up picking another character fairly quickly- a defense character. He was the character who reminded me of WallE, whose lore I had watched in a cinematic short.

So what happened? Why couldn’t I decide? Well, according to some Totally Legit People Who Study Brains:

“In his theory of attractive stimulus overload in affluent industrial societies, Lipowski (1970) extended this idea by proposing that choice conflict further increases with the number of options, which in turn leads to confusion, anxiety, and an inability to choose” (Scheibehenne 2010).

In other words, humans are delicate creatures who are simple, stupid, and easily confused. Especially when they’re overstimulated by options. Something that makes this easier on us is categorization. By categorizing large assortments, it’s easier for us to make a choice. Overwatch did this- the game categorized the characters into attackers, tanks, and healers. Once I had this explained to me, it was much easier for me to make a decision on what character to play. Yelp does this too; it’s much easier for me to choose a dinner restaurant by choosing a category (e.g. Italian or French).

But wait! There’s more. These Totally Legit People Who Study Brains have claim that even with these categories, large assortments still occasionally make it more difficult for people to choose, since they can’t come up with a good reason for any particular choice. If you, like me, find this hard to believe, that’s fine- the studies backing this up have rarely been able to be recreated, and the spread in results is kind of depressing.

Source: TrailBlazerCoaching

So why might this claim not be Totally Legit?

Well, the human brain is remarkably good at filling in blanks even when there’s no real connection (just take corpus callosotomy patients as an example). One could also assume that with an increase in assortment size, there’s much more opportunity for the brain to draw connections and find differences. Overall, these reasons perhaps explain why all large assortments don’t always cause decision paralysis.

Regardless, that doesn’t stop The Real World from doing everything they can to hack consumer brains for money. Amazon does this by providing reviews for their product- taking the burden off of the consumer, since by looking at a review you can just “steal” someone else’s justification.

Finally: why I ended up choosing Bastion/WallE for my second play?

I was picking what I knew best, the option I had the most “context” for. This happens outside of video games, too. Using Yelp to navigate restaurants, I don’t even bother looking at menus anymore. I open up the app, look at the options that have pictures. If the item doesn’t have a picture, I don’t know about it because I won’t look at the actual menu. Yelp gives me so much more information about my potential orders, I notice I end up having less decision regret because I can see what the other entrees look like. And when I still can’t choose between those, I’ll probably just order lasagna anyway, because after all:

“After agonizing over all the possibilities, people fall back, more often than not, on what they have done before” (Schwartz 2010).